Splendor in the Bluegrass

To hear Ernie Paragallo tell it, he owns the fastest three-year-old on the face of the earth--maybe in the history of the universe. "I don't think he'll be beaten again," Ernie boasted last week. "Ever?" a reporter asked. "Ever," the owner said.

Now, if you'd like to take that to the window with you, go ahead. It's your grocery money. The vehicle of Ernie Paragallo's confidence is a big, good-looking colt named Unbridled's Song, and when the gate opens Saturday afternoon in Louisville, he will doubtless leave it as the odds-on favorite in the 122nd Kentucky Derby. In Paragallo's scheme of things, driver Mike Smith will simply be along for the ride. Here's the scenario: Song will win the Derby. And the Preakness. And the Belmont Stakes. Just like that. The first Triple Crown winner in eighteen years and just the twelfth in racing history.

Does the evidence support Paragallo's view?
Well, last fall Unbridled's Song won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, quickly becoming the most celebrated two-year-old in America and prompting his owner's brazen prediction that he would win the Triple Crown in 1996. So far, so good. On March 16 he ran past Editor's Note and Skip Away to take the Florida Derby. On April 13 he put In Contention and Romano Gucci away in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct--his final tuneup for the Run for the Roses. In the wake of all that, Unbridled's Song's puffed-up owner isn't the only one who loves him. Just check out the tote board come Saturday: Thanks to the chalk players, Song's price will fit under a duck.

Hmmmmmm. So did favored Holy Bull's. And Hansel's. And Easy Goer's. And Prairie Bayou's. Don't let this get around, but a favorite hasn't won the Kentucky Derby since 1979, when Spectacular Bid managed it. In the last four Derbies, the average payoff has been $33.65 for each $2 win ticket. Not only that, no Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner has ever won the Kentucky Derby. And Wood Memorial winners haven't exactly blown 'em away on the first Saturday in May, either: Witness Talkin' Man, who won the 1995 Wood. He's still chugging along the Churchill Downs backstretch. By the way, Unbridled's Song ran the Wood's mile and an eighth in 1:49 4/5 over a fast track.

Don't tell Ernie Paragallo, but that's sloooow.
I'm sure you're getting my drift here. To be specific, my drift is named Cavonnier. And we'll get to him in a moment. But first let's join in the collective sigh of relief Colorado's students of the breed breathed last week when the news arrived that they would be able to take a chance on the Kentucky Derby again this year in the state's ten simulcast outlets.

While rumors swirled for weeks, the remedy arrived just yesterday--a scant three days before the Derby.

It's a fairly complicated story. Under Colorado law, the access here to satellite wagering on races from Santa Anita or Churchill Downs or Garden State Park is dependent on the existence of a live horse-racing meet at a major Colorado track. When new owners United Track, Inc., kicked Arapahoe Park back into gear in 1993, that opened the way for simulcasting. But when Arapahoe, which suffered through a falloff of nearly $5 million in its betting handle between its 1994 and 1995 seasons, closed its doors last September, satellite wagering on out-of-state horse tracks was also threatened. With no 1996 meet scheduled at Arapahoe, horse simulcasts abruptly stopped April 20.

Enter House Bill 1308, sponsored by Representative Ken Chlouber, a Republican from Leadville, and Senator Jim Rizzuto, a Democrat from Swink. Under this measure, which Governor Roy Romer signed April 22, satellite betting could be reinstated if a so-called class B racetrack--one that schedules thirty or more racing days in a year (down from sixty days under the new law)--would apply for dates in 1996. At an emergency meeting of the Colorado Racing Commission last week, moribund Arapahoe Park announced its intention to do just that, and simulcasts were reinstated May 1.

But neither horseplayers nor the satellite places are out of the woods just yet. Commission director Larry Huls explains that Arapahoe has until June 20 to specify its 1996 racing dates. That means United Track has seven weeks to line up horsemen, horses and jockeys in a racing market that has teetered on the edge of extinction for years. Conceivably, a second--and, perhaps, final--simulcast blackout could come June 20 if Arapahoe is unable to gets its act together.

Another provision of the law requires the satellite outlets--three greyhound tracks and seven betting parlors--to contribute one fifth of the 5 percent "facility fee" they get for carrying out-of-state races to Colorado horse-racing interests. That's something like $200,000 a year--hardly a sum that will transform Arapahoe Park into Saratoga in August.

For now, though, rejuvenated local horseplayers have all three Triple Crown races to contemplate.

Which brings us back to Cavonnier.
It's never easy to pick a Kentucky Derby winner--your present correspondent hasn't been right since 1989 and Sunday Silence--because the horses are young and their form is mercurial; the fields are huge; and the equine traffic running to the first turn at Churchill Downs is brutal. Racing luck at Churchill can be cruel, and the surface itself baffles many a young runner who's a living rocket at other tracks. The Derby also marks the first time any of these talented three-year-olds has tried the classic American distance--a mile and a quarter. As top trainer Shug McGaughey said last week: "When they get to Louisville and run a mile and a quarter, the eighth pole at Churchill Downs starts to look like the Empire State Building to some of them."

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